Takuma Sato wins pole for IndyCar at St. Petersburg

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After starting on the front row in last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Takuma Sato has gone one spot better this year to win the pole for tomorrow’s Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.

Sato, driving the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda for A.J. Foyt Racing, turned in a lap of 1:01.8686 on the last of his seven laps during the Firestone Fast Six to win the fourth IndyCar pole of his career and his first since last fall’s Houston doubleheader.

However, winning the pole hasn’t meant success for Sato on race day.

When he won his first IndyCar pole in 2009 at Iowa Speedway, he crashed and finished 19th in the race. Following his second IndyCar pole in 2011 at Edmonton, he finished 21st in the race after being hit by Ryan Hunter-Reay while running in second.

And in Houston last October, he won pole for Race 1 only to finish 17th after finding the tire barrier late; he would keep going until Lap 82, when he exited with handling issues.

Needless to say, the ex-Formula One pilot would like something much different tomorrow.

Tony Kanaan will start alongside Sato on the front row for his first race as a member of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The Indianapolis 500 champion’s best time in the FF6 was almost three-tenths of a second off of Sato’s.

But considering that Kanaan didn’t have a great qualifying record last season on road/street courses for KV Racing Technology last year (four Top-10 starts in 13 road races), he’ll certainly take P2.

Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay will start third on the grid for tomorrow’s race, joined in Row 2 by Team Penske’s Will Power, who had won the pole at St. Petersburg in each of the last four years.

Kanaan’s TCGR teammate and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon will line up on the inside of Row 3 in fifth position. Next to him will be another Andretti driver, Marco Andretti.

With a field this stacked, you had to figure that some big names would be having to start from the back tomorrow and that’s proven to be the case.

Among those that missed advancing out of the first round included Penske newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya, who is making his return to open-wheel racing this weekend; four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais; and Simon Pagenaud, regarded by many as the biggest threat to win the title this year that isn’t with Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti.

Also failing to advance from Round 1 was defending St. Pete champion James Hinchcliffe, who spun in his group session and made contact with the Turn 4 wall. That triggered a red flag, costing him his two fastest laps, and he’ll have to rally from way back.

On the other hand, a pair of rookies made some noise today. While Andretti’s Carlos Munoz and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Jack Hawksworth narrowly missed out on the FF6 thanks to a last-lap run by Dixon in Round 2, they’ll still roll off a solid seventh and eighth respectively on the grid.

Qualification Results – Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Pos./Car-Driver/ Time/Speed

FIRESTONE FAST SIX
1. 14-Takuma Sato, 1:01.8686, 104.738 miles per hour
2. 10-Tony Kanaan, 1:02.1637, 104.241
3. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, 1:02.2167, 104.152
4. 12-Will Power, 1:02.3955, 103.854
5. 9-Scott Dixon, 1:02.4454, 103.771
6. 25-Marco Andretti, 1:02.9595, 102.923
ELIMINATED IN ROUND TWO
7. 34-Carlos Munoz (R), 1:03.3955, 102.214
8. 98-Jack Hawksworth (R), 1:03.5738, 101.929
9. 8-Ryan Briscoe, 1:03.6206, 101.854
10. 3-Helio Castroneves, 1:03.6635, 101.785
11. 17-Sebastian Saavedra, 1:03.8374, 101.508
12. 20-Mike Conway, 1:03.9618, 101.310
ELIMINATED IN ROUND ONE
13. 11-Sebastien Bourdais, 1:15.8337, 85.450 (Group 1)
14. 77-Simon Pagenaud, 1:12.3741, 89.535 (Group 2)
15. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (R), 1:15.9111, 85.363 (Group 1)
16. 19-Justin Wilson, 1:12.5890, 89.270 (Group 2)
17. 18-Carlos Huertas (R), 1:16.8105, 84.363 (Group 1)
18. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya, 1:12.6994, 89.134 (Group 2)
19. 27-James Hinchcliffe, 2.34.4862, 41.945 (Group 1)
20. 83-Charlie Kimball, 1:13.0048, 88.761 (Group 2)
21. 15-Graham Rahal, No Time, No Speed (Group 1)
22. 67-Josef Newgarden, 1:13.1170, 88.625 (Group 2)

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds